Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Mexico in November.
I’ve quipped before that I’m pretty sure my birth stone is a seashell. I’ve made a pilgrimage to America’s roadside mermaid show in Florida, I went to actual mermaid school in the Philippines, I’ve attended several mermaid parades in New York, and let’s just say I’ve hot glued starfish to hair pins on a fairly regular basis for underwater-inspired Halloween costumes, too. So it’s probably kismet that I ended up turning thirty inside a giant seashell in Mexico, no?
What can I say, the mermaid life chose me. And I can’t wait to show you all the amazing details and wonders one cavern really can hold!
I was actually deep in the process of planning my 30th birthday extravaganza in Jamaica when the trip started to hit a few major snags. Panicked, I went to Airbnb and looked for a big beach house basically anywhere this side of the planet! It was then that I realized that The Shell House in Isla Mujeres, which I’ve had saved to a wishlist for just about forever and which is booked up from now to eternity, had a two night gap over my actual birthday.
It was one of my most spontaneous travel decisions and what an incredible blessing it turned out to be!
This beauty, known locally as Casa Caracol, didn’t simply wash ashore. Apparently there’s a local legend it did — and there was enough conch meat to feed the entire island. Allegedly, fisherman of Isla Holbox — another stunning island in Quintana Roo — once got into a verbal sparring match with the fisherman of Isla Mujeres while out at sea. The Holbox fisherman boasted of having the biggest fish in the world. The Mujeres fisherman fired back that they have the biggest shell.
“When we found it, we made ceviche for all the island — and then we sold it to the gringos that live there!” Though the owners aren’t gringos, they do love that story.
Here’s the real history in a (nut)shell. The original shell, which contains a master bedroom and bathroom upstairs, and a living room, kitchen and half bath downstairs, was built by Mexican artist architect Eduardo Ocampo — who still, along with his wife Raquel, still lives next door today and showed us around upon our arrival! This was long before the advent of Airbnb — he built it for the joy and the challenge, not as a gimmick. And that’s what makes it even more special!
Eduardo first visited Mujeres in 1967 to assist in the construction of Nabalam Hotel, which still stands today. He was inspired by the seashells that lined the shores of Mujeres, and became intrigued by the idea of constructing one. In 1994, he and his wife Raquel moved to Isla and built the home he still lives in today. His brother Octavio Ocampo, a famous painter, visited often — and eventually, Eduardo used the lot he owned next to his own house to create his brother a vacation home and painting studio that would charm the world over.
As the house is a major tourist draw in the south of the island, I wondered how much privacy we’d have. But really, all you can see from the road is the swirl of the conch peeking out through the trees and a few signs. We really were in our own little oasis here.
Construction on the Shell House began in 2001, a journey that took three years and often involved Eduardo working solo when his visions were too elaborate for his construction team to even imagine, let alone execute. While photos of that era are hard to find, I squealed when I found this one on Instagram.
Today, the house is adorned with scallop-shelled headboards, showers and sinks where water flows through seashell spouts, and walls covered with paintings by Octavio.
Eventually they added a second shell off of the first one, and right before our arrival, a third little shell in the back. I was kind of panicked because more friends than I expected RSVPed yes to my extravaganza invitation (I mean, look at these photos… maybe I shouldn’t have been) and pretty soon my mermaid pod had grown to eight and the host told us it was strictly two to a bedroom, no wiggle room. But, fabulous news! They also rent a cheap studio on their property immediately adjacent, bringing the total capacity to eight.
So, how much does it all cost? The original Seashell House for four guests generally starts at just $300 a night! If you need the third shell, that will cost you an additional $100 per night, and if you need the add-on apartment (adjacent but sadly, not shell shaped) that’s $70 per night.
Yes, there are quirks — you’ll share the pool with a dozen territorial iguanas, the kitchen is teeny, the wifi went down often, and we lost power one night which made it a sweaty sleep, and . But you are staying in a seashell on a small island in Mexico so, it’s pretty hard to put a damper on that.
If you’re planing an adventure of your own, keep in mind that The Shell House is not really walking distance from anything, so either be ready to hunker down and enjoy the house — an excellent plan! — or rent a golf cart for a bit more freedom. We stopped at the island’s big Chedraui grocery store on the journey south, and stocked up on snacks. The hosts are also happy to arrange taxis, golf carts, chefs to cook dinners at the house, masseuses to come by, and more.
We split our stay on Isla Mujeres with two nights at The Shell House in the south (I would have booked three, but it’s all that was available) and three nights at a penthouse apartment in the north, which was a perfect balance, I think. While the island is small, it allowed us to just enjoy being in the remote southern side of the island for a few days before heading to the buzzy north where most of the action is.
In addition to mermaid tails and shell-phones, you might want to consider the following. I kinda feel like we blew it not bringing The Little Mermaid — avoid the same with my packing list below!
I still pinch myself that I was lucky enough to turn thirty here — a three year old girl’s dream, for sure — in the company of so many of my favorite mermaids.
I had really high hopes for this place and it exceeded my expectations. What an absolutely magic, completely indulgent, obscenely joyful, purely ridiculous travel experience.
I felt like the luckiest mermaid in the sea, staying here.
What a beauty — at all hours!
My birthday shellebrations, plus our adventures in the north of the island, coming next.
Would you stay in a giant seashell? Any questions about the experience? Fire away!